Why the Sarasota Film Festival Is Indie Film’s Best-Kept Secret

Why the Sarasota Film Festival Is Indie Film's Best-Kept Secret
Why the Sarasota Film Festival Is Indie Film's Best-Kept Secret

After begging, borrowing, stealing and Kickstarting to finish that potential masterpiece of a production, every broke-ass American indie filmmaker faces the same trying question as U.S. film festivals (each with their own submission fees) seem to pop up as quickly as Starbucks coffee shops: Where, beyond Sundance and SXSW, should I be sending my labor of love?

For starters, try the Gulf Coast. Having just wrapped their 15th season earlier this month, the Sarasota Film Festival continues to be one of the fest circuit’s best-kept secrets — a vital showcase for veteran and emerging auteurs that attracts iconic red-carpet talent, passionate (if generally much older) audiences who actually stick around to engage in insightful post-screening Q&As, and smartly curated premieres that have sometimes been sorely overlooked by the big dogs.

At the annual Sarasota Yacht Club tribute luncheon, actress Mariel Hemingway cried (“Don’t worry,” she said, “I do this all the time”) while accepting the Impact Award for her advocacy in suicide prevention, as seen in Barbara Kopple’s “Running From Crazy.” (The film was an official Sarasota selection, and the two-time Oscar-winning documentarian was also feted with the festival’s Director Award.) Also honored were actor-director Griffin Dunne, Canadian actress Suzanne Clément (star of Xavier Dolan’s transgender drama “Laurence Anyways,” which won the festival’s Narrative Feature Competition), and actress Lili Taylor, who joked that her Career Achievement in Acting Award better not be a lifetime achievement at her age.

“I love the Sarasota Film Festival,” Taylor told Indiewire. “It’s one of the few places left that really seems to celebrate film, champion the independent filmmaker, and provide a relaxing atmosphere to get geeky with fellow film comrades.”

Taylor, who participated in a live conversation series to discuss her craft (along with Hemingway, Dunne and “The Last Picture Show” filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich), also co-starred in Tom Gilroy’s “The Cold Lands,” here making its North American premiere after a Berlin launch. A poignant, unpretentious, beautifully melancholic coming-of-ager, Gilroy’s sophomore follow-up to “Spring Forward” sees the Catskill Mountains through the emotionally underdeveloped POV of taciturn teen Atticus (Silas Yelich) as he ventures self-reliantly into the wild after the sudden death of his hippie-minded mother (Taylor). Unexpectedly bifurcated, the film’s livelier back half focuses on the sweet, oddball camaraderie between the kid and a wandering stoner (Peter Scanavino) who takes him under his wing.

In talking about his particular festival experience, Gilroy likened the Sarasota community to Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” in which the regional city of Manchester literally invented its own music culture, sound, scene, and aesthetic “out of thin air and enlightened determination.” He fittingly praises how Sarasota maintains both a global perspective and an intimate, communal feel: “You can see the new Olivier Assayas film, have an afternoon beer on a small-town main street before losing an hour in an incredible used bookstore, then get hammered at a cheesy motel bar’s karaoke night. It doesn’t get more global than that.”

Beyond the typically boozy late nights of any fest, which can feel like summer camp for its grown-up guests no matter where the locale, Sarasota’s strength inarguably remains in its fantastic programming, led by festival director Tom Hall. How did every other programmer manage to miss such impressive world premieres as Nathan Silver’s “Soft in the Head” (a riveting NYC-set drama, inspired by Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” about a hot mess of a young woman who inadvertently clashes with the friends and strangers keeping her from drowning) and the gorgeously hypnotic Canadian curiosity “The Oxbow Cure” (about an isolated woman dealing with family illness and grief, and the enigmatic creature that may or may not be lurking in the woods outside)?

However, it was within Sarasota’s “Independent Visions” competition that one wonderfully clever and chilling provocation stood out as a true discovery. Winning top honors and a distribution deal with the quintessentially hip boutique label Factory 25 was Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties,” a frighteningly naturalistic tragicomedy about student-on-student violence, as if “Elephant” were uneasily seen as pop-cultural meta-satire. The section’s jury included Factory 25’s Matt Grady, filmmaker-journalist Michael Tully, IFC Center curator C. Mason Wells and filmmaker Alex Ross Perry — whose acclaimed, equally edgy comedy “The Color Wheel” was once a Sarasota world premiere.

Perry told Indiewire that it was the immersed authenticity of the film’s world and characters that made “The Dirties” stand out: “The director is so clearly a part of that world,” he said. “Watching the characters sit in a basement playing ‘Mario Kart 64’ with a ‘Fight Club’ poster on the wall felt perfectly realized, in a way that no production designer on a big budget film could ever touch.” He also expressed admiration for the way the film went against mainstream storytelling conventions. “The attitudes and dynamics felt lived in in an astoundingly honest and relevant way that we see too little of,” he said. “The fact that the film grapples inter-textually with the actual process of filmmaking and eventually takes an unexpected-but-clearly-foreseen genre turn should be compared to a slight of hand performed by a Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman.”

And now, thanks to its Sarasota win, “The Dirties” may soon arrive at a theater near you.

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